By Philip Walzer

A dozen Latine students got an early start on the fall semester in August.

They received early move-in privileges. But more importantly, they attended a new two-day orientation, Latine Experience Onboarding (LEO), intended to increase their comfort level and help them smoothly navigate their first year at Old Dominion University.

They created vision boards to strategize how to counteract fears in a positive way. They went through the ropes course on Whitehurst Beach to instill trust and teamwork. They visited offices, including the Student Health Center, the Perry Library and the Center for Major Exploration & Mane Connect Success Coaching.

“We’re giving them a roadmap so they know where to go if they run into problems that first day,” said Ana Luz Williams, associate director of marketing for undergraduate admissions, who organized LEO. “The goal is to retain that student and make them feel they have a family here that they belong to.”

The participants were freshmen or transfer students.

“LEO helped me get to know the campus and let me know that I’m not alone.” - Jabsiry Hernandez-Velasquez, a freshman from Harrisonburg.

Jabsiry Hernandez-Velasquez, a freshman from Harrisonburg, said: “I have never been away from my family, but LEO has invited me in. LEO is a family that always is there for you even after those two days. They are very welcoming and friendly to everyone.

“LEO,” she said, “helped me get to know the campus and let me know that I’m not alone.”

Mariela Romero, graduate assistant for Latine initiatives in the Office of Intercultural Relations, said, “With so many of these students being first-generation college students, it is important for them to build these relationships with other Latines who they can relate to. The LEO program offers resources, connections, and community, which in turn help with retention and provides a path towards graduation.”

The two-day session introduced the students to a variety of campus groups, including Old Dominion’s Hispanic and Latino Employee Association and the WEPA student dance team, as well as such local organizations as the Hampton Roads Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

They also heard from Joy Lee Hernandez, the president of Old Dominion’s new Latinos Alumni Chapter.

“Never let anybody think you cannot, because you can,” she told them. “You can be a powerhouse person. Get engaged; don’t be afraid. You don’t know who might have what you need.”

Hernandez (M.S.Ed. ’14) is the director of Hampton University’s Child Development Center and will receive her doctorate in education from Old Dominion in December.

“It can be intimidating,” she said in an interview. “A lot of them might find themselves lost. I’m hoping to build a partnership and help them grow within the community.”

LEO began stitching together a support system in ways large and small.

“Do you need a book bag?” a student asked another at one session. “I have an extra one.”